International Symposium 1998 TOP
Virtual Sensitivity

Awareness of the Earth and Possibilities
for New Science Education in the Internet Age

Dr.Shinichi Takemura
Associate Professor
in Cultural Anthropology and Media Environment
Tohoku University of Arts & Design

#Awareness of the Earth and Possibilities for New Science Education in the Internet Age.

The Internet "as the nervous system of global size" and multimedia technology has changed our global experiences radically and suggests possibilities of entirely new approaches to the conventional education of sciences and environment.

They are not merely the changes where printed text books are converted into dynamic things with vivid appeal to our senses and information of the world's museums and art galleries being digitized and shared by all.

If the seismic activities occurring every day in various parts of the world can be seen in real form directly through the Internet by all the people of the world, how will children's views of the earth change and how will their scientific understanding improved?

If there was a system where one could monitor in real time, how one or others of the world net surf the global home pages, and if one could follow the "moving" process on the Internet, children would certainly appreciate the presence of the Internet as a global network of information.

The web site "Sensorium" (http://www.sensorium.org/) was created by us in an effort to put these live experiences of the Internet into design.

Sensorium is not a site merely to digitize and list the existing knowledge and data. It is an experiment for the Digital Museum as a new "forum" where we may experience and share a moment. It is also an attempt to create tools for science and environment education which is only available on the network.

I would like to introduce works using the Internet and to share my attempts to encourage children to understand the internet through experiencing with their bodily senses at a children's workshop jointly given with NTT (including an experiment to create a structure simulating the Internet by use of paper-box-and-thread telephones). In addition, I would like to present my proposals for use of the Internet/Multimedia for education.

The following three points are of particular importance.
  1. The substance of world experience in the age of Internet; possibility of integrating "Intelligence" and "Sensibility"
  2. Taking out media from the Black Box (understanding not only "the result" but also "the process")
  3. Bridging/combining "Real space" with "Cyberspace"

# Awareness of the earth in the age of the Internet

In a deep blue space spreading on a computer screen, a vibrating silver globe is drifting. On a closer look, one sees that bubbles are generating incessantly at various places as if the entire earth is breathing in and out. It is a part of our Web site, "Sensorium", which was named as "Breathing Earth"

The recent images of inner movements of the globe (to be more precise, movements of the two weeks preceding the moment when one watches the home page) obtained by monitoring the seismic movements occurring daily all over the world were compressed into CG animation of less than 20 seconds.

The important thing is that this is not a mere fictional image, but is the self-portrait of the "real" earth based on the observation data recorded by seismometers of the world and collected daily via the Internet.

Seismometers scattered all over the world are none other than numerous sensors which sense what may be called the fetal movements of the earth every moment. Data of minute crustal reformations at these sites are successively collected through the information network based on the Internet (WWW) and make up a realistic seismic database of a global size which is updated daily. Similar real-time data sensing and its accumulation in database are being performed from various sides such as temperatures of the air and the sea level, the wind directions and the sea currents, and they enable understanding of world-wide climatic changes such as "El Ninõ" and the earths crustal deformations which had so far been impossible to learn.

In this context, we human beings are now acquiring "the nervous system of a global size" which monitors total changes of the "physical" and "emotional" conditions of this alive and breathing planet.

Unfortunately, such information resources remain as mere lists of dull numerical data used only by a handful of specialists like seismologists, and most people do not even know that they exist. Most of the humans on this earth neither feel the presence of this "nervous system of global size" in their daily life nor sense the throbbing pulses of a living body called the earth.

We were thus prompted to create a program based on the seismic database, public information property, to convert numerical data, which are meaningful only to specialists, into visible and dynamic expressions which the general public and children can intuitively understand.

This may be described as "building a platform for global sensibility" and an attempt to open a window in each of the individual terminals (PCs) in order to actually feel that each and every one of us potentially has "the nervous system of a global size".

We thus understand that the earth is constantly breathing as "a whole", that earthquakes are by no means abnormal phenomena that occur only occasionally but are "normal" for a healthy earth as they occur in numerous numbers every day all over the world, and that earthquakes which we experience in Japan are not isolated or abnormal but are parts of "the incidents on the network of the earth" and linked to the earthquake in Indonesia or the Philippines.

# Designing New Experience
--- The "Hows" and "Whats" of Media

Although what I described are only a part of the primary experimental stage of the Sensorium project, it would be possible to glimpse the signs for new global awareness and possibilities for science education brought about by the Internet and multimedia.

What we aimed was, above all. searching for "new world experience brought about by the Internet" and "something which can only be done by a new media structure called WWW (World Wide Web)".

It does not mean merely converting the conventional media contents such as text books and TV images into electronic media, and transplanting the collections of museums and art galleries into cyberspace by simple digitization.. It is possible to use the inherent structure of such Web environments for realizing a platform where ones experiences are holistic.

Another good examples of designing unique experience in the Web environment are two contents of Sensorium, "Cell Meter" and "Star Place". The former graphically shows how many percent of the body cells of a person accessing the page have been replaced since the last access. (Our body cells are said to be replaced in the unit of several hundred billions a day).

The latter is a live system to impart the sensation of speed with which the earth (on which one exists) constantly flies or moves at an astonishing speed in the space of the solar system by showing how rapidly the number on the counter increases from the moment the page is opened. (Several thousand km in a minute since the speed is 30 km/second.)

Both designs offer "experiences" unique to the Web environment which achieves "live" and "updated" self recognition that own presence mistaken as constant and immobile actually continues dynamic movements and changes by the unique characteristics of this "interactive (= mass customizing)" media, which is validated only by individuals actively accessing the pages at different times.

"Education through the Internet/Multimedia" is not a mere issue of introducing computers and networks as tools. It should be perceived in the sense of how new "experiences (WHAT)" can be created in children by exceeding the concept of skillful use of digital technology as a "means (HOW)" for more effectively conveying the existing knowledge.

Only then, integration of "intelligence" and "sensibility" in its true sense becomes possible.

# "Jigsaw Puzzle" Type Media Structure

In this context, "Breathing Earth" supposedly aims at visualizing "earthquakes" and "living earth", but it also aims to bring out the substance of the Internet simultaneously (indirectly), and to focus on the holistic "sensibility" of living in the new information environment as a latent theme.

For, it has become possible only through the Net to realize this "daring" attempt of accumulating the data of seismometers from all over the world every moment nearly in real time and totally visualizing them on a screen which is accessible by all. This is indeed astonishing, and we did want to share with many people such senses of astonishment and gratification for the possibilities of such experience. (The site name "Sensorium" does express our wish for sharing such new experimental environment and also sharing "the common sense" for the time and situation we are placed in.)

The structure of this global experience may be captured by the image which is just the opposite to the one described by Russell Schweicart, an astronaut. He says that his experience of seeing the earth as one "a whole" from outside played a decisive role in creating a new relationship between the humans and the earth. This is symbolically expressed by a metaphor of "a jumping flea". A flea sitting on top of an elephant does not think that the elephant is a living thing because it is too big and sees it as a part of the earth which continues almost endlessly. However, once it jumped up high in the air and looked down, the flea realizes for the first time that the elephant is not a part of boundary-less earth but is a limited and fragile living creature like himself. This certainly expresses the situation currently surrounding us where a new phase began for the humans of the 20th century who had gained a privileged viewpoint of looking down at the earth from the space ----- capturing the earth as Gaia and considering limits of resources and preservation of the environment in earnest.

Our attempt of monitoring vital movement of the earth through the Internet, however, points out another approach of recognizing an elephant called the earth as a whole.

If the view seen by "a jumping flea" was a whole image looked "top down", this global sensing of earthquakes may be described as the whole of "the bottom up" view made up by accumulation/ editing of the perception of innumerable fleas feeling minute shakes of the earth by clinging to the various parts of giants surface.

Recognition of the earth by each local clinging fleas is like a fragment (just as each piece of jigsaw puzzle) --- the fleas are simply like a group of blind men touching an elephant as the Japanese proverb goes. But when they are connected by the network and begin to share their data of "feel", there appears the whole "elephant" as in a completed jigsaw puzzle. It is an image of the world as sensed by "the networking group of blind people".

This is a form of recognition inherent to the age of the Internet and heralds the birth of a new mode of experiencing the world. It is neither a one-dimensional "bird's eye view" nor discrete and localized "insects' eye views". It is not the "personal" structure like telephones or letters nor is it the "mass" structure like TV and publishing even though it started from individuals' recognition (sensors). It enables creating and sharing of "the whole image", which is heterogeneous from conventional images, and re-arranges the relation between "the individual" and "the whole" in an entirely new way.

# Opening Up Media's Black Box

This is naturally the reflection of the structural characteristics of the Internet per se.

Often described as "the network of networks", the Internet has grown into a complex network of a global size from multi-dimensional small local networks as they reached out and joined hands. The hardware structure of the Internet infrastructure has the history of a kind of voluntary "jigsaw puzzle".

The structure of information (contents) carried thereon inevitably creates "the whole" in various areas as small diverse pieces are chained and gather voluntarily as in a jigsaw puzzle.

An easy-to-understand example is the contents of art galleries and museums. A considerable number of art galleries and museums of the world currently maintain home pages to show their digitized collections. As one browses through the world's art spaces by going through the list of page addresses, one fantasizes that one is walking through "a museum of a global size". As "museum collections" are "connected" on the Internet, users are presented with a cyber-museum having a collection of a global size without anybody designing it.

Even a museum with an enormous collection is merely a small piece among collections of the world. Instead of the collections being monopolized and concealed in the enclosed spaces of individual museums and art galleries, they are publicly shown in an electronic "Commons" called the Internet (WWW) and shared as resources, and make up a magnificent art collection bottom-up as in a jigsaw puzzle. Thus, the image of the whole "elephant", artistic resources owned by humans, surfaces unexpectedly.

This does not stop at quantitative explosion of vistas of cultural properties and works of art of the world, but it is a qualitative leap in information experience for the humans. While these contents are the materialistic information of the real space (such as paper and fabric) transferred into a cyberspace, it is beginning to be endowed with characteristics unique to the age of the Internet in its synergistic mode of experience.

Children, however, will find it difficult to intuitively understand this bottom-up formation of the net sphere.

When looking at home pages, for example, one feels like turning the pages of a book and hardly feels the reality of going through various servers of the world or that the contents of the world are being connected as in a jigsaw puzzle. For them, it is not much different in substance from looking at picture reference books or CD-ROMs.

In addition, as the current media education tends to evaluate its effectiveness only in terms of the volume of knowledge acquired and emphasizes the use and skills of computer as tools too much, they appear too preoccupied by the result (fruit) of media technology such as transmission of e-mails and use of home pages/data bases to notice the mechanism or process which enables such result (as in other media). We have therefore designed an experimental scheme to attract children's attention to the structural substance of the Internet and its fun by using two contrasting methods. The Internet tends to remain a Black Box for many.

# Integrating "Cyberspace" and "Real space"

One is an application of "Web Hopper", the content of "Sensorium", which was structured in Electronic Arts Museum (Ars Electronika Zentrum) in Linz, Austria (where majority of visitors are children).

"Web Hopper" was originally the meta web contents to show in real time on a world atlas on a web (Sensorium) the loci of trips made by plural people as they go net-surfing through home pages of the world. Supposing a person watches home pages from a gateway on the net, we can obtain the IP address data of the servers at his start and the destination from the information packet flowing there through (using a tool called TCPdump). When this is converted to geographical information (location) and shown in real time on the atlas, the net-surfing process or the movement of each person is dynamically shown, i. e. from Japan (Tokyo) to London, and then to New York.

Based on this system, we installed plural Internet terminals with different color screens and a monitor showing a huge world atlas in a room in Linz Museum. When children browse through Tokyo or London pages from a red terminal, their "red" trace is instantly drawn on the atlas (for instance, from Linz to Tokyo to London). Children can intuitively understand how they are traveling the world by using the network.

With their global travel, "green" and "blue" trace of their friends who are also net-surfing on the green or blue terminals next to them are visualized on the same monitor. As they share one cyberspace with plural others, they can appreciate in real time the sense that accumulation of their respective information exchange is making up the substance of "the Internet".

Another experimental attempt which we carried out in a multimedia workshop for children (and their parents) given jointly with NTT used a most contrasting "analog" method to make them understand the Internet through their bodily senses.

A simulation experiment was participated by children who created "the Internet" in the classroom by "paper box-and-thread-telephones" in order to understand the bottom-up network structure in a visible, tangible form, and achieved unexpected success.

They experienced the process of creating a local network by dividing themselves into groups of 10 (they are connected by the thread phone to each other) and designating the groups as America, Japan, etc. , and then connecting the local networks into a global network as in a "jigsaw puzzle". The analogy to the characteristics of the thread telephone which does not carry voices well unless the thread is given an adequate and uniform tension helped them to understand the bottom-up type network which is supported mutually by small pieces.

As they experienced in real form successful transmission of a message by another circuit when one circuit was cut, they understood the strength and interesting character of the bottom up, lose structure network (at a far more intuitive level than the logic of adults that it was born out of "necessity for distributing risks in the age of nuclear wars".)

By going through such realistic creative experiences, visualizing a net-surfing such as "Web Hopper" is understood in more concrete terms.

# What is "Transparency" of Media?

In summation, such attempts are supported by the awareness of two important issues which have complementary relation with "live design of world experiences" such as "Breathing Earth" as I discussed in the beginning.

The first is to emphasize intuitive insight and understanding about the substance of a global information environment called the Internet by focusing on medias "Black Box". Additionally, information exchanges or movements there should be focused upon nurturing a holistic "sensibility" of living in that new environment.

Contemporary media such as television, e-mail and home pages are generally like "Black Boxes" and it is hard to actually visualize their mechanisms and processes. Given only the technical result (fruit), one cannot necessarily say that the users sensibility toward media is being nurtured totally.

"Transparent" media which is merely easy to use (easy to obtain result) becomes, in a sense, increasingly "clouded" for users.

Secondly, the experience in "real-space" and the challenge of bridging with "cyberspace".... thread telephone the Internet and "Web Hopper" were both attempts to introduce tangible bodily senses and feeling of distance to abstracted media (the process of practice and information exchange process).

This viewpoint is the basic concept for the entire "Sensorium" built by us. As the first example of "Breathing Earth" showed that the earthquake experienced earlier in the morning can be seen by re-positioning it holonically on the net, bi-directional dynamism of the most physical experience is expanded by mediating experiences in the electronic space. There are actually many people who had become sensitive to the actual shaking of the earth and climatic phenomena since they started looking at these contents.

"Net Sound", the audio contents of Sensorium, which is heard by applying a kind of "stethoscope" to the Internet and listening to the sounds obtained by converting the packet movements on the network, was created as a mechanism to bodily feel the presence and practice of "others" who are active in the cyberspace/the real space beyond. When one applies the stethoscope system to Linz Electronic Art Museum, it is noisy at the time when many children are there using terminals and quiet during night ... a system of sensing that one is "connected" to others who are strangers and that there certainly exist practices of "real people" on the other side of cyber-network. Could this be another public standard for thinking about the transparency as network media?

At any rate, the concept of not self-completing our (especially childrens) media experience in "cyberspace" seems to gain the most importance not merely from the point of viewing immersion into the electronic space as dangerous but also in fermenting sensibility (sense) for more total media and truly expanding the possibilities of the Internet/ Multimedia.

Copyright (c) 1998, Shinichi Takemura, all rights reserved.
Permission to reprint on Child Research Net